South Africa is a country lauded across the world for its peaceful transition to democracy, a country whose hero, Nelson Mandela, is an international symbol of hope and freedom. But I sometimes wonder whether the peace is really there, whether the praise is deserved.
It’s strange that if you watch the television programs we watch here in South Africa (CSI: New York, Law and Order), you would think that New York City was the most violent place on Earth. But I’m a 43-year old South African, and I should know better. Our annual murder rate, at 32 murders per 100,000 people, is one of the highest in the world. Only 14 countries have higher rates, but looking at absolute numbers, not a single one of the 14 countries had more homicides in 2012 than South Africa did (Malawi – 5,000 killed, Jamaica – 1,100 killed, Honduras – 7,100 killed).
What is at the root of these deaths? Guns.
Gun violence is a topic that is, unfortunately, close to my heart. Four years ago, armed burglars broke into my sister’s home and shot and killed my brother-in-law. The intruders also attacked my younger sister, who was seven months pregnant at the time, while her husband lay bleeding to death. Soon after the shooting, he died in her arms. His last words to her, as they were getting into bed just before the intrusion, were that he couldn’t wait to hold their baby girl.
In a news story about the incident, my sister said, "It is clear that your life is never safe no matter where you live. There is no such thing as a safe place in South Africa. The proof is that I am a widow at the age of 29 and that my child is fatherless because of crime."
When you access the data on the use of guns in South Africa, and violent deaths from guns, it makes for very grim reading. The latest statistics show that every day, 18 people are killed through gun violence, and two people commit suicide using a gun. And these numbers are, of course, a subset of all people killed in South Africa daily through unnatural causes. The Gun Free South Africa website also mentions that this is a significant reduction from the 34 killed per day 10 years ago. Though this is a tremendous achievement, this statistic does not exactly fill me with great comfort.
So far this year, South Africa has had close to 4,300 gun deaths. New York City, with its population of 8.2 million, had 440 between January and May. New York’s population is about 16% of the South African population, but even if we extrapolate the New York population to match the South African population of around 52 million, it would still not be able to match how we are killing each other every day in my country.
(Image via Simon Rogers, The Guardian. Click for interactive graph.)
Pro-gun lobbyists argue that it is people that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. While it may be true that someone intending to do another harm will always find another way if a gun is not accessible, I also know that the easy access to guns certainly makes killing extraordinarily easier.
The second pro-gun argument I often hear is that people need to have guns for self-defence. But that doesn’t make sense. For example, my sister and her husband did own a gun, but the attack happened so quickly that there was no opportunity to retrieve it to use it in self-defense.
Statistics also show that it is four times more likely that the gun will fire at you, or someone close to you, before the attacker takes a bullet. You are significantly more likely to have your gun used against you than to be able to use it successfully in self-defence.
This leads to another question: Where are these criminals getting the guns they use?
In my sister’s case, they most likely got the gun from someone else’s home they burgled prior to killing my brother-in law. There are fewer than 1.8 million registered civilian gun owners in South Africa, who own just over 3 million guns – around 5.8 guns for every 100 people. However, Gun Free South Africa also notes than nearly 20,000 firearms are reported lost or stolen from civilians every year, which is around 50 guns a day, with another 2,000 lost or stolen from police officers every year. More gun licences means more guns in circulation, and this is a situation that surely we do not need.
I am a proud South African, but I can admit that we live in one of the least equitable societies in the world. We have poor education, weak policing, societal fragmentation, and disturbing rates of violence and crime. Addressing gun violence goes beyond tackling who has guns, deciding who can own one, and who cannot. It requires more concerted efforts to address the education, security, and poverty.
I mourn for my brother-in-law. He will never get to meet his daughter, who was born just months after his death. And four years later, we are no closer to a resolution on why he was killed that night. A police investigation is practically nonexistent.
I also mourn the thousands killed in South Africa since that day in 2009. But if anything, their deaths shed a harsh light on how much we still need to do as a society, and how desperately we need to improve these grim realities here, in my beloved South Africa.